Chicago-based sculptor Diane Simpson sources the histories of fashion and architecture simultaneously in her work, choosing their most streamline moments to create hybrid constructions that fall somewhere between representational and abstract. Her retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center presents 40 sculptures and drawings, with a clear cohesion. In her practice, whether on paper or in sculpture, Simpson reduces the form of garments and other accoutrement—a dress, a bowler hat, a collar, and even a toolbelt. This forces a three-way intersection between her process, the feminine tradition of domestic craft; her media, masculine industrial materials; and her affection for early modernist architecture and art deco design.
Ribbed Kimono is an elegant, geometric greeting at the entrance of the retrospective on the 4th floor Exhibit Hall. An early work from 1980, the muted gray, fan-shaped construction with colored pencil and crayon detailing hints at the title and a Japanese aesthetic. The piece is made up of cutout appendages that fit into slots around a base structure. Two large pieces extend off of one side diagonally, not to support its weight, but as decorative buttressing. Although engineered as if a bridge or a building, the sculpture’s sharply cut cross-sections reveal a familiar, humble texture of lightweight corrugated board. Process, materials and inspiration are blatantly exposed and even celebrated here, as in all of Simpson’s work.
After the cardboard pieces of the late '70s and early '80s, Simpson expands her use of industrial materials to include MDF, wood, vinyl, linoleum, fabric, leather, aluminum, copper, brass, and steel. Samurai 7 (seen at left, all image credits at bottom) and Samurai 9, both from 1983, take a more graphic turn with surface decoration, as Simpson puts narrow stripes all over the MDF sculptures with oil stain. The recurring use of the triangle meets with the painted stripes, recalling sculptural incising and ornament found on the exteriors of art deco skyscrapers. However, the angular samurai costume is not lost in this architectural abstraction; it is perfectly complimented.
Simpson further deconstructed garments and accessories in the 1990s, and the retrospective presents several examples from her series of headgear pieces made at this time. Hood is a conical sculpture on the floor that resembles a playground spaceship, complete with visible steel tacks and silver paint. This piece contains a sinister note as well in its resemblance to the type of hood worn by Ku Klux Klan members. Kerchief is much quieter, hung on the wall like an empty frame. Made of vinyl mesh and MDF, the sculpture escapes total stiffness with Simpson’s use of colorful silk knots. Their loose ends stick out haphazardly, giving the piece a handmade charm.
Preparatory drawings, framed and hung next to their sculptural counterparts, are a significant part of the exhibition. Some, like Study for Sleeve—Cradle, include clipped images of period dress that directly illustrate the inspiration for a piece. Dimensions and scale are marked on the drawings, and often the sculpture is conceived on paper from many angles. Simpson’s play on flatness, space, and volume is mathematically explored in two dimensions before they are created in three, and the drawings further an appreciation for her labor-intensive process.
Aprons, bibs, collars, and vests round out the last decade of the 30-year span of work in Simpson’s retrospective. In the Apron series, she returns to her interest in 1920s and ‘30s art deco, adding a more complicated use of geometry and a new push towards surface treatments. These pieces stand vertically and resemble female silhouettes in a full-skirted, mid-century feminine ideal. Apron III (seen at right) uses sections of patterned vintage linoleum on the “skirt” of the sculpture, reminiscent of a floor covering from Simpson’s childhood kitchen. Personal narrative and feminist undertones are undoubtedly more present in the apron series, but Simpson keeps them from being so direct that they take away from her formal emphasis.
Window Dressing: Pinafore ends the retrospective on a busy note; a sculpture from 1987 placed in front of a specially made backdrop from 2007. Part of a commissioned project by the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin, it was created as a site-specific piece, to be displayed in six street-level windows of the museum for one year. Although it ismeant to be eye-catching as well as decadent and excessive, the red, black, and gold geometric design copied from found wallpaper ends up competing with the sculpture rather than enhancing it. The combined sculpture-with-backdrop presentation feels out of place in a gallery of pieces that can stand on their own.
Simpson’s best traits as a sculptor are exemplified in a gleaming, architecturally-inspired object that reveals itself to be a bib. Modest in scale, Bib-brass, a mesh wall sculpture, is a standout piece that begs for attention near Window Dressing: Pinafore. Simpson harmonizes the simple shape of the bib with its brass medium, an especially beautiful industrial choice, while removing it from its menial function and celebrating its formal essence.
Simpson’s aprons, dresses, bibs, and collars seem to valorize traditionally female spheres of labor, such as cooking and child-rearing. Her early inspirations seem chosen almost at random for their form, absent of overt metaphors about the body and society. Yet the later part of her retrospective delves beyond surface and construction. By using architectural design in her sculptures, she suggests a dichotomy between the femininity and domesticity and the ever-present industrial materials of patriarchal society.
(Image credits top from bottom: Diane Simpson. Dress Frame, 1987. Stain/colored pencil on MDF, 49 x 56 x 24 in. Rockford Art Museum. Diane Simpson. Samurai 7, 1983. Oil stain on MDF, 70 x 66 x 13 in. Courtesy of the artist. Diane Simpson. Apron III, 2001. Enamel, MDF, basswood, vintage linoleum, 65 x 25 x 21 in. Courtesy of the artist.)